Remembering David Lebovitz’ pine nut syndrome, I started to take a closer look at packages of food we buy at the local supermarket. It’s so easy to get completely focused on buying local vegetables but forgetting to look at the label when throwing something like pine nuts into the shopping cart. The worst thing is, most supermarkets don’t care and don’t offer an alternative. However, let’s not panic just yet: this is slowly changing (but reached a plateau). Let’s take a closer look at one of my favorite dishes: risotto.
What does a good risotto require?
- Olive oil.
- Garlic, onions.
- Random star ingredient, as I call it - such as leeks or mushrooms.
- A hard cheese, traditionally Parmesan.
- Main condiment such as a (dried) stock
- Pine nuts.
Okay - I’m from Belgium. Now what?
Instead of swapping out ingredients for alternatives like butter for olive oil to make it more “local”, let’s try to stick with the recipe and see how far we can get.
Olive oil. In most supermarkets easily available organically. Most olive oils come from Spain, Italy, Greece and Tunisia - in that order. That’s 1000 to 2000km from Belgium. Italian olive oil is mostly sharp and pressed from green olives. A green olive comes from an early harvest. However, thanks to Morten’s Olives book, I became aware of a small scale production of exceptional French olive oil with a rich and complex taste originating in the North of the Provence, about 900km from where I live. The problem is, it’s hard to get.
Rice. Difficult. Why? Cheap rice is from Asia, that’s why. You can use short grained sushi rice for Italian risotto (feel free to leave a comment if you disagree) but there’s a 13hr flight between Japan and Belgium, not exactly called local. Luckily, Italian rice is readily available, the brand “Gallo” is well known in all supermarkets. It’s not cheap though, and not at all organic. Riso Gallo is one of the largest rice mills in Europe. That means I’ll try to avoid buying from that supplier - why should I support a huge firm when I can (try to) help local farmers?
Other options are organic French rice from Camargue or Spanish rice from Deltebre. As you can see, it’s starting to get difficult as these kinds of cereals are typically grown in wet and warm conditions, not near Belgium.
Garlic and onions, as the star vegetable, can be tackled with ease if you grow your own vegetables. If not, it’s damn difficult if you don’t pay attention to the labels! Organic onions are for sale in my local Carrefour and are from China. China! What the fuck? Non-organic onions are usually from the Netherlands. I don’t think we need to argue here. Most people are unaware that garlic is a spring vegetable and can be stored in a dry and cool place for a long time. Don’t buy this in winter, but stock up and simply ferment it before it’s shooting.
The hard cheese might be a tough one if you insist on the Parmesan, which is a DOP: Denominazione di origine protetta. That means it’s called only Parmesan if it’s from a specific region Italy. But Belgium and the Netherlands are exceptionally good in making cheese, even hard and salty cheeses, like Friese Nagelkaas. Of course we said we’ll stick to the recipe but instead of using Pecorino, you can try very old Dutch sheep’s cheese.
‘Mozzarella di bufala’, one of the tastiest fresh Italian style cheeses, are almost always imported from Italy. But why? If you really bother to look, Belgium makes it’s own mozzarella di bufala (it shouldn’t be called that because of the protective DOP label but who cares) and it’s simply superior in taste. The only problem is that you’ll have to drive to another shop - that might even be outside of your comfort zone.
Why are all pine nuts from China?
When I shop at my local Carrefour, I have two options when buying pine nuts: the cheap “1” brand and the more expensive Carrefour brand. Both pine nuts are small and expensive, but nuts are always expensive. Looking at a supermarket like Bio Planet, they sell Italian pine nuts which are bigger, tastier and not that expensive compared to the Chinese counterparts. You could try to Google “Chinese vs Italian pine nuts” and you’ll learn different species of nuts within the pine tree family. There are strangely enough a lot of blogs on this very subject.
So, about that risotto. The point isn’t to keep it purely Italian, to only buy organic or local food, but the point is to know what you buy, and to make a thoughtful decision based on that. Instead of completely ignoring labels, prices and different markets, try to pay attention on your next shopping day and notice the small but very real differences for each product you load into the cart. You might not have the privilege of choice when it comes to a big price range difference - that’s okay, just buy cheap Asian import rice. But know that there are tastier and healthier (not only limited to your own body!) alternatives.
You can only start finding, if you know what to look for.
It’s a shame that people buy less and less responsible, but go out on restaurant more and still complain about their monthly (food) budget. In 1900, the average American spent about 40% of his monthly budget on food, compared to the 13% of 2003. That’s 600 EUR if you earn 1500 EUR, compared to 200 EUR. Prices of course vary but it’s a relative percentage and it does indicate something. I personally think you’ll end up paying a lot more in medical bills later if you keep that percentage below 15%.
Reintroducing domestic science
Instead of focusing on mathematics, linguistics and economics in schools, let’s reintroduce household techniques as an integrated part of our youth’s training course. Previously, one of the family members dedicated his/hers (usually the latter) time on grocery shopping, cooking, knowing what’s good for you and what’s not and knowing what grows in what season. Now, if you’re lucky, you or your partner is interested in the subject or you simply like cooking and you’ll end up with at least a piece of the puzzle. I was one of those people who had no general idea about seasons. Try gardening, it solves a lot of problems (but introduces new ones like snails).
The second part of my personal solution would be to get rid of supermarkets. I know this sounds insane and impossible in the volatile world we live in today, but instead of browsing through loads of garbage you might end up with something exceptional if you go to a market or speciality stores. This doesn’t mean that the store can’t be “big” or you won’t find everything in the same place - chances are high you indeed won’t. I used to resent the notion of having to do my weekly grocery shopping and now I look forward to it every single time. It took a long time before realizing I had to flip a switch in my head in order to achieve this mental state. Farmer’s Markets are a great solution if you take the time to get to know the farmer. You’ll learn how the wheat is milled and where the rye is grown.
Invest the time. You’ll have to eat three times a day for the rest of your life.
Might as well be something nourishing.